by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Frisson of Excitement
The French Quarter was largely unaffected when Hurricane Katrina caused Armageddon-like devastation in New Orleans in 2005. So on the first morning, as my colleague Aoife and I ambled around on a jet-lagged pre-dawn stroll, it was just as I remembered it from way back. The same thickness in the summer air, the same full-on smells, the same energy-sapping humidity. Café du Monde was still serving its unique chicory-infused coffee and delicious sugar dusted beignets. There was the usual motley crew there of cheerful down-and-outs, late night revelers, early morning joggers and too eager tourists. Most significantly, there was still that je ne sais quoi frisson of excitement in the air – even at 5am – that sense of being somewhere special, somewhere unique, somewhere that might prompt a man to say the following:
Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under taxes and frauds and mal-administrations … but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio. [Lafcadio Hearn]
James Carville, political commentator and proud New Orleanian quoted this 100 year old statement during his impassioned address to the Financial and Insurance Corporate Planners (FICP) summer meeting hosted effortlessly at the Ritz Carlton, New Orleans this past week. It’s an apposite comment on the post-Katrina city where – pardon the analogy – the rising tide of recovery has not necessarily lifted all boats. Carville – obviously – highlighted the positives, particularly the city’s recent top ranking for education, but there’s still a gaping gap between rich and poor, crime is still high, and outside of the charter system, public schools are still bad. But New Orleans has never been a utopia. Its appeal and impact run much deeper than shiny surfaces and external appearances. As Carville so eloquently said
Quality of life is not the issue. It’s about way of life. We’d give up nothing of what we do and we we are to have less humidity in summer. More than any other city, in New Orleans you’re in a culture.
A place that grabs your heart and captures your soul
Tourism, and the meetings and events sector in particular, have played a vital role in accelerating post-Katrina recovery in the city. National associations quickly put New Orleans back on their annual rotations as soon as it was physically viable but still, 8 years later, there are perception issues to be dealt with. The 200 meeting and event professionals who attended FICP’s Education Forum, however, can be relied upon the spread the good news. We experienced a truly motivational destination, uncompromisingly authentic, unapologetically itself. A place that captures your heart and grabs your soul like few others.
I arrived for dinner on Monday night after fourteen hours of travel but a ten min shower at the Ritz and ten seconds on Bourbon Street revived my drooping spirits and soon I was enjoying a rather spectacular meal at Revolution, a restaurant that’s part of the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Mixing re-imagined local dishes like crab beignets and shrimp and grits with quality steaks and fish and a wine list as long and as epic as the bible itself, Revolution is amongst the best restaurants in the city and, truth be known, the most expensive. On Tuesday night the charming Sayish Afework, Assoc. Director of Sales at the nicely renovated Hyatt Regency hosted dinner with curated wine pairings for the FICP and HPAC boards. This too was a stunning gastronomic affair featuring a wild salmon entrée [Wild Salmon Steak, Covey Rise Zucchini Paysanne, Creole Tomato Tartare with Kalamata Olive, Crispy Baked Fingerling Potatoes to be precise] and some equally wild scintillating conversation – thanks Jana and Shiela!
FICP goes gold in NOLA
Incognito in a crowed elevator mid way through the second day of the event I over-heard two planners describe the event as “the best ever”. This, too, was my impression. The legendary Jeff Hurt delivered a provocative, highly interactive session on “learning” and how evidence based research into how we learn can transform the organization and structure of meetings. Jim Spellos did his way-cool technology thing and helped us understand the complexity of internet connectivity. Heidi Hanna helped us deal with stress and build up personal resilience while Chester Elton delivered a perfectly choreographed presentation about the importance of culture in the workplace, reminding me of Drucker’s famous dictum “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Song Division staged a magical team building activity during which the entire attendee community created the FICP anthem within a 60 minute timeframe. There was something for everyone on a packed roster of educational offerings that were at once thought-provoking, practical and genuinely inspirational. Great credit to Jeff Leggett, Event Chair and his Design team.
Rockin’ at the Roosevelt
The social and networking functions were lively and spirited too, as befits the destination. An excellent progressive dinner at the Ritz Carlton on the first night was followed by a great party at The Roosevelt on night two proceeded by our very own parade. Entertainment was supplied at the Roosevelt by local hero, Rockin Dopsie, who had everyone on the dance floor- Steve Bova included – before it was even decently dark outside. We continued the party where all parties continue in New Orleans – on Bourbon Street. There we had privileged access to Bourbon Vieux, a wonderful private venue with balcony, beautiful staged and set by Bonnie Boyd of BBC and Company, one of the city’s premier DMC companies.
Going wild in NOLA
Before flying back across the Atlantic, Diane Lyons our friend and partner at Accent on Arrangements, arranged for us to take a walk on the “other” wild side. Her colleague Jody Halter, drove us down St Charles Ave to the Garden district and toured us around the spectacular nineteenth century mansions, many home to the rich and famous, notably Sandra Bullock – a regular visitor to the city since Katrina. We were then taken on a Swamp Tour by Cajun-native Captain Tom who spoke French before he spoke English and knew the massive swamp better than most of us know our way home. There’s something profoundly primordial about swamp life with its vast and rich eco-system, its flourishing flora and frolicking fauna, its proliferation of snakes and alligators and the quiet, peaceful easy feeling as you go rollin’ on the river of life.
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique marketing agency working with businesses in the meetings and events sector. He represented SoolNua client, Ovation Global DMC at FICP in New Orleans. He is a proud member of the FICP Hospitality Partner Advisory Council where he represents the DMC sector. He is immensely proud of the superlative, supportive work done at the FICP Education Forum by Diane Lyons and team at Accent on Arrangements and Bonnie Boyd and team at BBC Destination Management and for the Platinum level sponsorship of the event by global DMC organisation AlliedPRA. You all do our sector proud!